The corner of Alaska nearest Siberia was probably man's first threshold to the Western Hemisphere. So for years archeologists have dug there for a clue to America's prehistoric past. Until last year, all the finds were obviously Eskimo. Then Anthropologists Froelich G. Rainey of the University of Alaska and two collaborators struck the remains of a town, of inciedible size and mysterious culture. Last week in Natural History Professor Rainey, still somewhat amazed, described this lost Arctic city.
It lies at Ipiutak on Point Hope, a bleak sandspit in the Arctic Ocean, where no trees and little grass survive endless gales at 30° below zero. But where houses lay more than 2,000 years ago, underlying refuse makes grass and moss grow greener. The scientists could easily discern traces of long avenues and hundreds of dwelling sites. A mile long, a quarter-mile wide, this ruined city was perhaps as big as any in Alaska today (biggest: Juneau, pop. 5,700).
On the Arctic coast today an Eskimo village of even 250 folk can catch scarcely enough seals, whales, caribou to live on. What these ancient Alaskans ate is all the more puzzling because they seem to have lacked such Arctic weapons as the Eskimo harpoon.
Yet they had enough leisure to make many purely artistic objects, some of no recognizable use. Their carvings are vaguely akin to Eskimo work but so sophisticated and elaborate as to indicate a relation with some centre of advanced culture perhaps Japan or southern Siberia certainly older than the Aztec or Mayan.
In the ancient graves the scientists found more than in the ruined houses. Some skulls contain large ivory eyeballs inlaid with jet pupils (see cut, p. 59). Birdlike ivory beaks were substituted for the corpse's nose. Who were these people? How did they manage to live? Whence did they come, whither did they go? Says Professor Rainey: "We, as archeologists, have a difficult problem to explain the Ipiutak culture."